Brecht’s Theatre: An Overview of Epic Theatre in The Threepenny Opera, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and Man Equals


Joshua Lellis

Throughout his life. He wanted an audience to think about the human condition and situation rather than to have an emotional catharsis. (Brecht on Theatre.Lellis - 2 Bertolt Brecht is perhaps the most important figure in twentieth-century theatre other than Stanislavski. Brecht was born in Augsburg. Brecht fleshed out and expanded on these scenic ideas and acting techniques. and conflicts with plots that build toward inevitable emotional climaxes. more importantly. has flexible characters whose actions vary depending on their circumstances. Brecht argued that the “’Gesamtkunstwerk’ (or ‘integrated work of art’)” (37) was a horrendous idea since it is “intended to produce . He worked closely with Erwin Piscator. manifest themselves through his work. and. the epic theatre is narrative. design. The best way to examine Brecht’s influence on modern theatre is to study his plays and note how his views on theatre. directing. acting. Germany. on the world as a whole. 1898 (Willett. Brecht revolutionized a variety of theatrical aspects: text. such as Baal. and promotes rational and intellectual thought over feeling. film segments. experiences. Whereas the traditional dramatic theatre focuses on characters’ psyches. p. Brecht’s early plays. the original mastermind behind “epic theatre”. and placards which told the story of the play (Willett. 37). dramaturgy and theory. 109). which is a term now firmly associated with Brecht. were expressionistic experiments which were episodic in structure and dealt mostly with mood and texture rather than plot. p. Brecht wanted a revolutionary theatre—a theatre that would appeal to an audience’s intellect rather than pander to an audience’s emotions. Brecht approached realistic dramatic theatre forms as obsolete and considered the epic theatre to be the theatre of the future. on February 10. 17). The epic theatre involved the use of projections.

the three soldiers threaten an Irish porter. Galy Gay. into the ideal soldier. . In 1941 Brecht trekked across Russia and settled in Los 3 Angeles. where he set up the Berliner Ensemble. It is integral to the examination of Brecht’s development as a playwright to look at a cross-section of Brecht’s work: Man Equals Man (1926). and returned to Berlin. The play climaxes with Galy’s solo destruction of a fortress. delivers his own eulogy. The Threepenny Opera (1928) which focuses on the corruptness of capitalist society and brought his initial fame. and force him to pose as Jeraiah. (Brecht’s historical anachronisms are intentional and elemental to the epic theatre concept of alienation. Man Equals Man is one of Brecht’s early works. which indicates his attaining the status of the perfect soldier. or for Brecht’s purposes an Everyman. and turns away Jeraiah toward the end of the play with his own papers. He was questioned by the House Committee of Unamerican Activities in 1947. and The Good Woman of Setzuan (1940).) Four British soldiers rob an Indian temple. He transforms from a simple man.Lellis hypnosis” (38). later work. One of them. which is more expressionistic than his later works. Jeraiah. Brecht fled Nazi Germany the night after the Reichstag fire and went into exile in Scandinavia. They give Galy Jeraiah’s papers and Galy is gradually reconstituted into the perfect soldier: he loses his own identity. is left behind during the escape. The play is set in India after the first World War. the group that would bring international fame to his theories. In 1939. which is an excellent example of his more complex. The creation of a Stanislavskian “slice of life” onstage would be the antithesis of Brecht’s goals. though Queen Victoria is mentioned during the play as being the monarch on the throne. Afraid of getting caught.

murders. but Mack flees. and since she is a good person she is unable to turn people away. given a noble position. Shui Ta. almost instantly. the police chief. In The Good Woman of Setzuan. Yang Sun is appointed as manager of the factory. She creates an alter-ego. or Mack the Knife. she buys a tobacco shop. where he is betrayed and arrested. though she has accepted money from another man. and. The three gods. Mr. Peachum. Macheath is forgiven of his assaults. Peachum. her cousin. eager for revenge. a small-time crook. Macheath is in cahoots with Tiger Brown. and robberies. Peachum. is outraged that his daughter has married the criminal Macheath. and about to be hung when the Queen pardons 4 him. Shen Te. and has set up a tobacco factory. They spend the night at a poor prostitute’s home. Yang Sun accuses Shui Ta of murdering Shen Te and Shui Ta is put on trial. three gods have descended to earth in order to justify their existence by finding one good person. Shu Fu. recaptured again. She is constantly bombarded with requests for money and food. Shen Te is pregnant by Yang Sun. Macheath flees to a brothel. and give her money the next morning. is determined to have Macheath arrested. however. attempts to get Macheath arrested. He is then freed by an ex-lover. Mrs. With her new wealth. and allotted ten thousand pounds per annum by the government. weary from trying to find . In circa 1900 London. Shui Ta is a cruel individual and she finds that she has to be him more and more in order to survive. in order to run the shop as a businessman. and Shui Ta appears more and more to aid Shen Te until she no longer appears. her lover. who runs a business outfitting beggars. discovers that people want money from her. who has destroyed Macheath’s criminal record.Lellis The Threepenny Opera is the work that brought Brecht his initial fame.

there will God’s help be nearest. what does this say about our society? It turns everything topsy-turvy if evil is rewarded.) At the same time he is raised to the permanent ranks of the nobility. p. An infamous murderer about to be executed. Mack considers his desire and will to be “good” instead of depraved. return to act as judges. In Brecht’s characterization of Macheath as the ultimate capitalist. He loves to compare what they say with what they do. perform murder and theft without any conscience.Lellis other good people. (The Threepenny Opera. Where the need is greatest. (All cheer. Brecht is interested in how individuals implement their beliefs. . Brecht does not care what drives Macheath to crime and womanizing. and the play ends with Shen Te screaming out in vain for help. Act Three. intended to be recognizable to an audience instantaneously. however. or even glorified. Brecht seems to ask. At the same time. he is pardoned by the arrival of a mounted messenger who states: BROWN: …On the occasion of her Coronation. our Gracious Queen commands that one Captain Macheath shall at once be released. Brecht is very concerned in these three plays about the human condition. Emotions are not as important as ideology and action. Brecht is fascinated with Macheath the character as the archetype capitalist and how Macheath is able to exploit people without fear of punishment for the injustice. Brecht’s characters are distinct and are not necessarily stock characters. (Cheers. Brecht’s interest lays in Macheath’s position as a hero and how society rewards what should be condemned. 95) If this behavior is rewarded. or in the play’s terms. Brecht’s characters are painted with wide brushstrokes. They cannot reconcile that Shen Te has to act 5 cruelly in order to survive.) The castle at Marmarel and a pension of ten thousand pounds a year are his as long as he shall live… MACHEATH: A rescue! A rescue! I was sure of it. Scene Three. He is the pinnacle expression of selfishness that manifests itself through the capitalist system.

there’s got to be a way! (Good Woman of Setzuan. Tonight you are going to see a man reassembled like a car . but at the same time she must be ruthless in order to survive. p. To help good men arrive at happy ends.” (Good Woman of Setzuan. p. She needs an alter-ego of ruthlessness in order to survive. epilogue. represented by the soldiers.23). there must. As the First God says. But then Herr Brecht points out how far one can Manoeuvre and manipulate that man.Lellis Shen Te is in a similar situation: she is revered as a wonderful example for all to follow. You write the happy ending to the play! There must. If Macheath and Shen Te are well-fleshed out characters. manipulates an individual to act how they want him or her to act. Brecht is interested in the duality of the character and of the dialectic that is created: “How can one be good when society forces one to be bad?” He writes in the play’s epilogue: Could one change people? Can the world be changed? Would new gods do the trick? Will atheism? Moral rearmament? Materialism? It is for you to find a way my friends. 113) The question Brecht brings up throughout his work and the question which he wants the audience to ask themselves is: “How do you reconcile your ideology with the need for quotidian action?” Brecht encourages the audience to examine themselves and their society and to modify what they find wrong. “no one can be good for long if 6 goodness is not in demand. then Galy Gay is the other extreme. 1a. Man Equals Man is ultimately about socialization and how society. People take advantage of her generosity—an entire family of eight moves into her shop almost immediately after she buys it. Brecht writes in an interlude: Herr Bertolt Brecht maintains man equals man —A view that has been around since time began.

This proposition is especially interesting when one looks at Threepenny Opera.38) 7 Ultimately people are fallible in Brecht’s view of the world. JESSE: …This man whom we took under our wing…is like a leaky oil can. Act One. 10) . Capitalism is the cause of injustice. 10. Men cannot be relied on. People are easily swayed to believe: JESSE: The world is dreadful. exploiting the poorest of the poor for his gain. 64) The next important theme which runs through all of Brecht’s work is the evil of capitalism. p.” (The Threepenny Opera. Peachum is the most despicable of capitalists. (Man Equals Man. The Troublesome Twitcher… Outfit C: Victim of the Industrial Boom. Interlude. 8). Scene One. seventy per cent” (The Threepenny Opera. Including outfit. and then taking “fifty percent of the weekly takings. The Pitiable Blind. Scene One. p. POLLY: The vilest and weakest thing alive is man. Capitalism is viewed negatively by Brecht as degrading the human condition and human nature. preferably one who “never thought he would come down to this. p. (Man Equals Man. he says one thing today and another tomorrow. and the differences between the classes. Yes and no are the same to him. Peachum uses the standard goodness of people to prey on their sympathies: PEACHUM: These are the five basic types of misery best adapted to touching the human heart. poverty. The sight of them induces that unnatural state of mind in which a man is actually willing to give money away. allotting them a specific area of London in which to beg.Lellis Leaving all his individual components just as they are. The Cheerful Cripple… Outfit B: Victim of the Art of War. Peachum makes his living by outfitting beggars. p. and specifically Peachum’s character. Outfit A: Victim of the Progress of Modern Traffic. Act One. or the High School of the Art of Begging… Outfit E: Young man who’s seen better days.

This notion is what drives Brecht’s theatre: that people can be changed and that theatre can be didactic. Brecht’s point. of The Threepenny Opera. What will it look like if six hundred poor cripples have to be knocked down with your truncheons because of the Coronation? It will look bad. Peachum is vividly aware of the plight of the poor. and he expresses quite beautifully. Peachum states that he figured out “how to extract a few pence from your [the beggars’] poverty…: that the rich of the earth indeed create misery. since Peachum is using the beggars for his own financial gain. For example. the audience loses the tension and excitement of discovering what will happen next in the play. Of the three plays. There are two devices in Brecht’s structure of his plays that are of the utmost importance in understanding his drama: the use of the narrative placards and the use of songs. they would be motivated to act. Scene One. If they were to stand there in front of the Abbey. however. p. the following narrative is shown: “THE CORONATION BELLS HAVE NOT YET RUNG OUT AND MACKIE THE KNIFE IS . Enough to make one sick. If people are knowledgeable. in Act Two. but they cannot bear to see it. (The Threepenny Opera. The placards are displayed at the beginning of a scene in order to tell the audience exactly what is going to happen in that scene.” (The Threepenny Opera. Scene Two. is made: if the rich and the bourgeoisie were exposed to the poor.Lellis - 8 Peachum exploits both his workers and his fellow citizens’ sympathy. they would utilize the information. They don’t look very nice… You say the police will make short work of us poor people. But you don’t believe it yourself. p. Act Three. all in the interest of profit. 76) Brecht follows through with this bit of dramatic irony. narrative placards are only used in The Threepenny Opera. 72). Act Three. it wouldn’t be a very cheerful sight. In doing this. as a mouthpiece of Brecht: PEACHUM: …You’ve forgotten the monstrous number of the poor. Scene One.

p. 53). Usually the purpose of the song is the latter. 4a. expressing her conflicting nature between wanting to be good and help people and the need to use people to survive: Oh. (The Good Woman of Setzuan. even the point of the play. . though sometimes the song can be relevant to the play. Notes. p. The other important element in the structure of Brecht’s plays are songs. Religion comes into the same conflict that Shen Te comes into when capitalism is brought into the picture. why don’t the gods do the buying and selling Injustice forbidding. THE GIRLS BETRAY HIM. Brecht believes that “thinking about the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play” (The Threepenny Opera. An example of the song being relevant is in Good Woman of Setzuan. 4a. It is a complex issue. The individual at the top must have hurt some people in order to attain a position from which she may help others. Scene Two. p. starvation dispelling Give bread to each city and joy to each dwelling? Oh. when Shen Te sings the Song of Defenselessness. p. 49). You can only help one of your luckless brothers By trampling down a dozen others. the idea that capitalism is built on top of average workers. 53) It is also an interesting indictment of the religious communities of the world.” (The Threepenny Opera. 99). why don’t the gods do the buying and selling? She puts on SHUI TA’s mask and sings in his voice. Act Two.Lellis ALREADY AMONG HIS WHORES AT WAPPING. but it is difficult to follow through on that will. which 9 are used throughout the plays generally in one of two ways: to drive the action forward or to stop the action completely. Brecht also brings up the notion that one can “only help one of your luckless brothers / By trampling down a dozen others” (The Good Woman of Setzuan. summed up in a concise six-line verse. The desire to help people is there.

which is revealed in Ginny Jenny’s singing. Scene Three. 106) when he or she begins to sing onstage. 106). For example. Therefore. mainly in order to pull the audience away from the action. The Good Woman of Setzuan. If an audience begins to empathize too much with the characters. the Second Threepenny-Finale is extremely relevant to the action of the play. irrelevant songs also exist in the two plays. An excellent example would be the Song of the Eighth Elephant. Act Two. beating. Notes. It disrupts the action of the play. Brecht put some quite meaningless songs into his plays in order to have the audience do a double-take of sorts. Brecht also disrupted the action of his plays by having them occur in an episodic manner. then it is more likely that the audience members will not be spurred on to political action.” (The Threepenny Opera. p. Notes. Brecht believed that an actor has “a change of function” (The Threepenny Opera. Man Equals Man. However. He deems that there is nothing “more detestable than when an actor gives the impression of not having noticed that he has left the ground of plain speech and is already singing. in The Good Woman of Setzuan. just as the action of the play is being driven closer and closer to a climax. eating some other bloke! / A man can only live by absolutely / Forgetting he’s a man like other folk!” (The Threepenny Opera. and The Threepenny Opera all take place over a relatively long period of time—though not as long as other Brecht plays which span the scope of years. 67-68). cheating.10 The Threepenny Opera also has relevant and irrelevant songs.Lellis . “What does a man live by? By resolutely / Ill-treating. It is a song which is sung by the workers at the tobacco factory. Both Macheath and Peachum prosper on the misfortune of others. The Second Finale is a harsh and moving song which succinctly sums up the central argument of that play. p. p. His plays are episodic over long periods of time in order .

The Threepenny Opera is set in turn-of-the-century London. language is stylized to fit the time and place. Brecht set a great deal of his plays in time periods different than his own (a technique known as historification). to fit the magical arena of the theatre in which the episodes are taking place. they would think about the character’s situation over the period of time. The language is stylized to the particular time and place. p. It lends itself toward a general. 3) By not having the language try to emulate real speech. For instance. the language is stilted toward a proper. for I am beginning to get an appetite and I guess I shall be back in ten minutes. rather than the psychology behind the character’s action. If an audience member was watching a show. in order to help distance an audience from their own historical circumstances. and Good Woman of Setzuan in an imaginary city in China sometime in the early twentieth century. Brecht prevents the audience from empathizing with the characters.Lellis . almost cartoon-like interpretation. They are sure to be hanging around in numbers at the market place and you must be thankful if they don’t break in and murder people. GALY GAY: Then put the water on for the fish. The language in Brecht plays is important to how the plays affect an audience. In the three plays.11 to not allow an audience to empathize with a character. Galy’s response is awkward and forced. 1. Man Equals Man in 1920s India. (Man Equals Man. and it forces an actor performing this section to make certain decisions about the character. . stiff colonial speech which adds to the comedic effect of the show: WIFE: … And then there are those soldiers who are the worst people in the world and who are said to be swarming at the station like bees. Brecht avoids trying to chronicle life and speech in a manner that would be consistent with realistic playwrights. in Man Equals Man. What’s more they are dangerous for a man on his own because they always go around in fours… GALY GAY: They would not want to harm a simple porter from the harbour. WIFE: One can never tell.

Wong must call the gods “illustrious ones” to indicate their elevated status onstage. interact in elevated formal dialogue: WONG: … She’s in great trouble from following the rule about loving thy neighbor. 74) There is a lyrical flow at work in the script that is not natural in everyday dialogue. 106). The language in The Threepenny Opera uses a stilted gangster-esque vocabulary. WONG: What if we can’t help ourselves. The language allows them to be viewed as higher powers worthy of being the final judges of how one should live. in The Good Woman of Setzuan. heightened speech. though it is sometimes elegant and quite lyrical. Notes. illustrious one. the gods and Wong. 104). and singing” (The Threepenny Opera. p. Perhaps she’s too good for this world! FIRST GOD: Nonsense! You are eaten up by lice and doubts! WONG: Forgive me. the water seller. The language is an attempt to show the corruptness of the ruling class: by having gangsters talk in an aristocratic manner. A conversation between gods and humans must be heightened in some fashion in order for it to be accepted by the audience. For example. illustrious ones? Slight pause. The language is used to “display the usefulness of bourgeois virtues and the intimate connection between emotion and crookedness” (The Threepenny Opera. 6a. Brecht puts the image onstage of the corrupt capitalist.12 Brecht’s characters can speak beautifully and poetically. In his “Notes to The Threepenny Opera”. SECOND GOD: Try. These three levels manifest themselves in the language and the word . Notes. Brecht clearly lays out that there are three levels of speech at work in his play: “plain speech. p. I only meant you might intervene… FIRST GOD: The gods help those that help themselves. p. anyway! Suffering ennobles! (The Good Woman of Setzuan. and yet at the same time stilted.Lellis .

The Threepenny Opera is Brecht’s first fully thought through attempt at epic theatre and contains all of the elements which would be the signature of his later work: songs. Galy Gay is broken down and “reassembled like a car” (Man Equals Man. p.13 choice for songs. Brecht’s work develops from simple to complex and from vague to specific. .e. like Man Equals Man. Man Equals Man contains some early experiments with the epic theatre form. placards. and the audience is left to decide for themselves how to strive forward. both for playwright and for the audience. straightforward speech of characters such as Peachum. and an episodic nature.Lellis . It. how can one accept a world in which people are treated as properties or commodities? For instance. Though relatively simplistic in structure. For example. Man Equals Man is an attempt to understand human nature and to change society through the play’s absurd comedy. in The Good Woman of Setzuan. in the elegiac interludes between Tiger Brown and Macheath. While Man Equals Man focuses on the socialization of one particular individual. 38). sets up a ridiculous situation and asks the audience how this situation can be tolerated. and in the plain. i. The question is much more interestingly fought out. Interlude. interludes. Brecht’s development as a playwright and a theatrical theorist is clearly illustrated in these three plays. the speech that breaks up the action before Galy Gay is transformed into the soldier foreshadows the interludes which disrupt The Good Woman of Setzuan. which is Brecht at the height of his work. The Threepenny Opera examines the elevation of the criminal/capitalist to the status of nobility. He asks the ultimate question in that play of “How does one be good in a world in which one has to be bad in order to survive?” No answer can really be given to that question.

p. “Would new gods do the trick? Will atheism? / Moral rearmament? Materialism?” (The Good Woman of Setzuan. good-will. instead of justice. p. for instance. 7a. “This is the correct . to someone who provided far more specific situations and a much more complex view of the world. At the end of The Good Woman of Setzuan. He sees the injustice and the corruption of the capitalist system. WONG: Instead of honor. might do instead of love? THIRD GOD: I’m afraid that would create new problems. 113). he states his problem in the epilogue. as seen in The Good Woman of Setzuan. 85-86) Ultimately.14 Brecht developed over the years from someone who approached a particular depiction of the world simplistically and vaguely.Lellis . through a scene with Wong and the gods: THIRD GOD: … [W]hat do you suggest. Brecht as a playwright cannot take a stand saying. but there is no real alternative to that system. no! The rules will have to stand… (The Good Woman of Setzuan. He subtly shows his own dilemma. in view of the bad times. WONG: Or. in which a good-natured individual may strive for wholesomeness. um. where any individual is just as corruptible as anyone else. Benevolent One. good sportsmanship? THIRD GOD: That would only mean more work. or any individual can be manipulated or molded as much as anyone else. but at the same time contradict their ideology through their action. THIRD GOD: As for instance? WONG: Well. the intelligent playwright Brecht does not succumb to the lure of being a moral theorist. he comes to no ultimate conclusion on how to act in the world. such as in Man Equals Man. outward propriety? THIRD GOD: Still more work! No. perhaps his own thought process. epilogue. Brecht labored over the question in the show and does not come to any definitive stance as to how to act. nor any way to opt out of the system. my dear Wong? WONG: Maybe a little relaxation of the rules.

15 way to live”. Galy Gay wishes to help the soldiers. . No slogan or aphorism will unlock the key to a “good life”. Brecht understands the imperatives. because he is aware of the complexity of the question. In the end. he loses his personality. they are excellent questions to be asked.Lellis . and the contradictions of society. and it is in examining those contradictions that makes the plays so interesting. he is made into an idol. It is a philosophical question that is complicated by new situations and difficulties at every step in the process: Shen Te gets money. The epic audience is forced to think about these questions and justifiably so. Stanislavskian theatre. traditions. even if an answer may not exist. she must be evil to be good. the audience is left with the same question that Brecht started with: “How do you be good in a bad world? How does society force people to fit into a defined mold? Why do we promote gangsters as heroes?” The epic theatre provides an audience with an experience they cannot achieve in realistic. Macheath is morally reprehensible. There can be no quick and easy solution.

Eric. Eric and Vesey. Meridian: New York. John. Edited and Trans. Grove Press: New York. Two Plays by Bertolt Brecht: The Good Woman of Setzuan and the Caucasian Chalk Circle. Man Equals Man and the Elephant Calf. Trans. . by Brecht. by Willett. Hill and Wang: New York. Willett. Bertolt. by Bentley. The Threepenny Opera. 1983. 1960. 1988. by Bentley. 1977. John. 2000.Lellis . Gerhard. Desmond. Metheun: London. Bertolt and Nellhaus. Brecht. Bertolt. Bertolt. Trans. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Trans. Arcade: New York. Brecht.16 Bibliography Brecht. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht. Bertolt.

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